Starring: André Wilms, Blondin Miguel, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
You may like this if you liked: Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2011), The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011).
Le Havre tells the story of ageing shoe shiner Marcel Marx (Wilms), an ex Parisian bohemian who lives a modest life. One day two things happen to him, he meets an African boy who arrived in Le Havre as a stowaway, but evaded capture from the authorities. Marcel takes it upon himself to take the boy, called Idrissa in and try to help him get to England. While this is happening Marcel’s loyal wife has to stay in hospital to be treated for cancer and Marcel must adapt to looking after not only himself, but Idrissa.
These days it seems that French films predominantly fit into one of two categories: Smug, over long and preachy, such as Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) or Little White Lies (Guillaume Canet, 2010). Or they produce deeply involving but simplistic stories containing the most genuine heartfelt emotion such Amour (in French, therefore French) or The Kid with a Bike (see my previous reviews). I am happy to say that Le Havre falls in the latter group. In fact the story here is one of pure simplicity and the tone of the film contains nothing but genuine optimism towards the theme of human compassion. That is it, this film has no ulterior motive or no gimmicks, and it is a very simply and extremely involving story based around that one simple theme. However, this film is not just a tribute to human compassion, but contained within it are tributes to the history of cinema that are quite simply a joy to experience. When I say that, the use of music as well the way certain scenes are lit pay a respectful tribute to films of the 40s and 50s throughout the narrative. Throughout the film is a sense of timelessness, as it is never completely clear at what point in time this film is actually set, but that proves irrelevant as these these presented are universal and timeless.
This is not to say that this film is not without its realism, Marx and his neighbours all live a humble life bordering on poverty. The plight of Idrissa is unenviable and there is an honest depiction of a refugee camp just outside Calais. However, the theme of Le Havre is not that life is simply good, that would be naive. It is how these characters deal with life and the situations that it presents. Of course it would be so easy to fall into to the trap of patronising and borderline preachy cliché here, but this never happens due to the genuine feeling of honesty depicted throughout the narrative. Every character is presented very honestly with all their flaws quite clear to see, but it is their ability for natural compassion that drives the narrative forward. By the time Le Havre reaches its very satisfying conclusion where there are no loose ends, it is difficult not to feel that not only have you been entertained, but also enlightened.